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Diploma vs. Degree: Key Differences

12.21.2022 • 12 min read

Nick Griffin

Subject Matter Expert

This article explains what a degree and a diploma are. It lists the benefits of each, the main differences, the types of degrees, and faqs.

In This Article

  1. What Is a Diploma?

  2. What Is a Degree?

  3. Types of Degrees

  4. Differences Between a Diploma and a Degree

  5. Diploma vs. Degree FAQs

  6. Choosing Between a Diploma and a Degree

Today there are more people in the U.S. choosing to advance their skills and careers through higher education than ever before in history.

With the rising popularity of education, many people see the benefits of going back to school, such as a higher salary. But which type of education is the right fit?

It is important to think about what you really want above all else. Is it to make a lot of money or find career satisfaction? It all comes down to personal choice.

Many prospective students look at college degree programs and think it’s the only path, but this is not the case. Another option is to earn a diploma in a field you are interested in.

What Is a Diploma?

A diploma is like a certificate that is awarded to a student after the completion of courses on a specific topic. (And note, we aren’t talking about high school here.)

Diploma programs, like certificate programs, are a great option for those who wish to advance in a certain industry or field and do not want to go to college.

While some colleges offer diploma programs to students, most diploma programs are through technical schools or vocational schools that specialize in certain fields.

In a diploma program, a student focuses on a specific topic of interest for a period of time. Usually, diploma programs last 1 to 2 years, allowing students to learn the skills they need and move into an industry job quickly.

Keep in mind that there are many different types of diploma programs out there, from entry-level to graduate diplomas. Each of these has different areas of study that lead to different job opportunities.

Some common industries requiring a diploma include:

  • Nursing

  • Data science

  • Cosmetology

  • Animation

  • Automotive repair

Deciding to pursue a diploma means making a choice to learn key skills in a chosen field. That way you can enter the workforce in a new career or move up within your current profession.

Earning a diploma has several advantages:

  • The diploma courses focus on one specific topic or industry to give you a specialized education.

  • You can do most diploma programs in less than 2 years. This means you can start working in a new field or move up in your existing career quickly.

  • You can earn a diploma part-time so that you can keep working and earning money while advancing your skills.

What Is a Degree?

You earn degrees from a college or university after completing a specific course of study. While academic degrees focus on a certain major, the required coursework is usually quite diverse.

Students earning a degree complete several general education courses before starting on their specific major of study. This ensures that students who graduate with a degree are well-rounded and able to work in a variety of settings.

When choosing to earn a degree, you will have to declare a major—a field of study—that you are interested in working. Beyond the major content, degree programs teach students key skills such as critical thinking and problem solving that can be applied to a wide range of jobs.

Some common degrees are:

  • Computer science

  • Communications

  • Business administration

  • Economics

  • Engineering

Earning a degree means making a longer commitment to study a wide range of content. You can earn most degrees in 2 to 4 years depending on the degree type and major.

Types of Degrees

Degrees from a college or university fit into 4 types. Each type has different requirements to apply and a different commitment period revolving around the specified major.

Associate Degree

You can typically earn an associate degree in about 2 years. Some intensive programs last only one year. These programs require a high school diploma or GED for enrollment.

Community colleges usually offer associate degree programs, which are often cheaper and more accessible.

Universities can offer these degrees as well. For instance, Golden Gate University offers Degrees+, where you can earn a high-quality online associate degree plus a job-ready certificate in as little as 19 months. The extra wow factor is that—based on the national average for 4-year programs—students save 66% per year compared to the national tuition average.

Students can start a new career after graduation or go on to complete a bachelor’s degree in their major.

Some fields of study with an associate degree include:

  • Criminal justice

  • Computer programming

  • Culinary arts

  • Nursing

  • Accounting

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s degrees are the undergraduate degrees most people think of when considering going to college. You can earn this 4-year degree by taking coursework at a college or university.

You can choose to focus on a wide variety of majors for your bachelor’s degree. While in their program, students will take courses that are specific to their major and courses that are general requirements.

A bachelor’s degree focuses on helping students gain critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are transferable to a wide variety of jobs.

Fields that students with a bachelor’s degree enter include:

  • Education

  • Business

  • Architecture

  • Engineering

  • Environmental biology

Master’s Degree

After earning a bachelor’s degree, a student can go on to complete a master’s degree or postgraduate degree. You can do this in the same field as the bachelor's degree or in a completely different field. It usually takes 1 to 3 years to complete a master’s degree at a college or university.

A master’s degree focuses on coursework specific to the program of study. Usually, there is a practical component to a master’s degree, like an internship. This is where the student works alongside a supervisor in their chosen profession.

Some job fields that require a master’s degree are:

  • Project management

  • Social work

  • Nutrition

  • School counseling

  • Business management

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree is typically earned after a master’s degree. But you can do it in combination with a master’s degree as well. Doctoral degrees are the highest level of degree you can attain in a specific field.

At a college or university, a student can graduate from a doctoral program in 2 to 6 years. Some of these degrees are a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)., M.D. (Doctor of Medicine), or Ed.D. (Doctor of Education).

Often, these degrees focus on research in the field of study and typically require writing a dissertation.

Practical skills are also key in a doctoral program, where students gain advanced real-life experience.

Jobs that require a doctoral degree include:

  • Psychologist

  • Pediatrician

  • College professor

  • Lawyer

  • Epidemiologist

Differences Between a Diploma and a Degree

When considering which type of education to pursue, you should understand how they differ from each other. Understanding the differences in types of education will help you make the best decision for you and your needs.

Some key differences between a diploma and a degree are:

Time Requirement

Degree programs are a commitment to spend several years on your education depending on the type of degree you pursue. You can complete an associate degree in as little as 1 to 2 years, while a bachelor’s degree typically takes 4 years of full-time study.

Diploma programs vary quite a bit in their time commitments, largely depending on the type of diploma and school. You can earn most diplomas in less than 2 years, with some taking just a few intense months.

You can do both degrees and diplomas part-time or full-time. The key difference is that there are many diplomas you can earn in less than 2 years of part-time study.

With either a degree or diploma, you will have to learn to manage your time while in school. This is not easy, but it will be a very beneficial skill for the rest of your life. Since degrees take longer to complete, they typically cost more than diplomas. When earning a degree from a college or university, costs include:

  • Tuition

  • Fees

  • Room and board

  • Books

With so many educational institutions offering degrees, there is an endless range of tuition costs for getting a degree. For this reason, most college students rely on financial aid to help them cover their college expenses.

Earning a degree is an investment in time and money, and you would like a return on it. Researching which degrees lead to the highest paying jobs may be worthwhile before applying.

With many diplomas offered at lower-cost schools or through online programs, diploma costs are much more manageable. This makes diplomas a great choice for someone who is working while trying to advance their skills and knowledge.

Qualification Received

Diplomas focus on a specific job or subject matter, usually in a hands-on educational experience. This is so diploma holders can start working in their chosen field right after graduation. While this is great for a specific industry, it is not as transferable as a degree.

Even though degrees focus on a specific major of study, they incorporate skills that apply to a wide variety of fields. Degrees of any type show an employer that you can think creatively, can commit to long-term goals, and have a well-rounded education.

Program Requirements

Depending on the type of degree you pursue, there are various requirements for enrollment. For example, entering into a master’s degree program requires the completion of a bachelor’s degree and perhaps specific coursework.

To enroll in an associate degree program or a bachelor’s degree program, you may have to pass tests such as the ACT or SAT. This is in addition to graduating from high school or getting a GED.

Diploma programs have far fewer requirements for enrollment. Students can typically enter a diploma program as long as they have a high school diploma or a GED.

Students interested in enrolling in a diploma program before graduating from high school may have to take a short assessment or meet with an academic counselor before starting the program.

Possible Career Options

Most diploma programs focus on practical knowledge and prepare students for a career in a specific industry. This ensures that students who graduate will have a certain level of competence in their chosen field.

You can do many diploma programs out there for a career change or to gain skills to move up within your existing job.

Associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees are typically much less hands-on than diploma programs. They tend to focus on theory over practice. These degrees do show prospective employers a specific level of mental competence in the major field and are more transferable to a variety of jobs.

A master’s degree and a doctoral degree both have practical components as part of the program. Students in these degree tracks usually have access to industry professionals for a substantial amount of their education.

Diploma vs. Degree FAQs

Is a diploma the same as a degree?

While some people will use the terms diploma and degree interchangeably, they are not the same. You earn a degree through a college or university for the completion of several courses in a major of study.

You earn a diploma through specific—usually hands-on—coursework in a specific field through a college, online program, or technical school. Earning a diploma takes far less time than earning a degree and is less transferable to other fields.

Can I get a job with a diploma?

Yes. Diploma programs teach students the specific skills to work in the desired industry. You can get a diploma to level up in an existing job or move into a career that interests you.

Earning a diploma shows your prospective employer that you know how to do the skills within the chosen profession.

Do jobs prefer a diploma or degree?

Depending on the job, a diploma or a degree may be more appropriate.

If the job is hands-on or skills-based, a diploma may be more appropriate than earning a degree. For jobs that focus on theory and interpersonal skills, a degree may be more appropriate. Degrees also are more transferable from one career to the next.

It is best to search for jobs you’re interested in and see what the qualifications are. Try to talk to people in that industry as well to see what it takes to get into your field of interest and if it will be a good fit.

Which is better, a diploma or a degree?

It depends on what career you’re thinking of pursuing. If you’re looking for a career in a technical field, then a diploma might be best.

If you are considering going into a professional career and want to be more well-rounded, a degree might be the right fit. Having a degree will provide you with a much more diverse skill set than a diploma.

What careers can I pursue with a degree?

Having a degree will set you up well for a wide range of jobs. Students who earn a degree in business, for example, can find employment in almost any business due to the diverse set of transferable skills they learn.

Keep in mind that there are a plethora of degree options out there and range in achievement level from an associate degree to a doctoral degree. Of course, some bachelor’s degrees pay much more than others, but having a degree means setting yourself up for future employment in many fields.

Some of the most in-demand bachelor’s degree fields are:

  • Marketing

  • Civil engineering

  • Accounting

  • Registered nursing

  • Software development

Choosing Between a Diploma and a Degree

With any decision, it is best to think deeply about who you are and what you want to do. Take the time to write a list of what is important to you in a career. Then try to prioritize it.

Once you know your priorities, look for career options that fit as many of them as possible. If you want to have autonomy in your work and a high salary, find jobs that suit those preferences.

Take the time to talk to others who do the jobs you are considering to see if it still sounds like a good fit. Take a course in the subject through a community college or online platform like Outlier to see if the content interests you.

In the end, keep in mind that successful completion of any educational program will benefit you in the future by giving you a set of new skills. Try not to overthink the decision and move forward with your life. By taking action steps toward your future, you will live with a greater sense of purpose and satisfaction.

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